Once again my book club pulled through and introduced me to a book that may have never crossed my path, yet I absolutely loved it. It makes me wonder how many other books are out there screaming “Sarah, pick me! You and I will get along so well!” Alas, so many books, so little time.
The book I was introduced to was “Circe: A Novel” by Madeline Miller. It is a tale from Greek mythology about the enchantress Circe, the daughter of the sun god Helios and an Oceanid named Perse. From her birth she was the odd one out, as her brother Perses and sister Pasiphae were seemingly more beloved by the family and were wicked to Circe reminding her of her oddness on a regular basis. Circe had another brother, Aeetes, who she was close to, but he left to establish his own kingdom leaving her alone.
As she did not have the powers of her father, nor the demanding presence of her mother, she found her own special ability in the power of witchcraft. This was seen as a threat to the balance that had been built between Helios of the Titan gods and Zeus of the Olympian gods. Because of this and Circe’s transformation of a nymph into a powerful monster out of pure jealously (I don’t want to give away too much of the story, and this is a good one), Circe is banished to a remote island. Although this is to be a punishment, Circe takes this opportunity to hone in her craft and strengthen her ability in incantations and potions. While on this island, she is visited by other gods and humans alike and begins to learn more about what it is to be human and the true nature of the gods. This causes her to have a crisis of identity of sorts as she truly loves the mortals, but know she is from the gods, so how must she be.
This crisis of identity is what I feel drives the book and is present in every story of the interactions she has with humans and gods. In the end it seems to me she identifies more with the mortals and becomes somewhat of an advocate for them when addressing the gods and also feels more comfortable interacting with them rather than the gods with their hubris. This crisis is what makes her human as well as most of the gods seem so certain of who they are and expect all others to honor and admire them. Some of the humans she comes to learn from and admire include Daedalus, father of Icarus and an extraordinary craftsman who built the labyrinth that would house the Minotaur born in the House of Minos, and Odysseus, one of the most important figures in the Trojan War and the hero in Homer’s works “Odyssey” and “The Iliad.” These two men become very influential in terms of how Circe learns to love and how she begins to learn the butterfly effect of sorts in terms of her actions, especially those involving her witchcraft.
An interesting discussion that came up in my book club and I have seen when reading some of the comments on Goodreads about this book is that there is a feminist theme surrounding Circe. I can definitely see how this theme could come up when discussing this book, especially with lines such as “humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep,” and “it is a common saying that women are delicate creatures, flowers, eggs, anything that may be crushed in a moment’s carelessness. If I had ever believed it, I no longer did.” However, I see this book as more of a humanist perspective and what challenges can come from human emotion. The quotes given above are spoken by Circe seem to revolve around the hubris she sees in the gods and goddesses she interacts with which she continuously does not understand and disagrees with. When she talks of destroying the Minotaur born from her sister and King Minos of Crete that is certain to cause much havoc, her sister responds by saying that the gods love their monsters as it gives something else for humans to ask them for help with. I could figuratively see Circe’s jaw drop at this statement. Come to think of it, makes me think of the White House and Capitol Hill a bit…….oh no please don’t go down that dark hole. There are other quotes that show how she connects with human emotion and the growing empathy she has with their plights as dictated by the gods.
“A golden cage is still a cage.” – In reference to Daedalus living in a great palace with everything seemingly at his disposal, but he was not able to see his family and did not have free will within the palace walls.
“Even the best iron grows brittle with too much beating.” – A showcase of her empathy for Odysseus and his wild changing emotions that he struggled to keep in check as he was to be the leader of his men and felt the need to stay strong and focused.
“I touched the thought like a bruise. Testing its ache.” – Addressing her love of Odysseus and his company on her island and the pain of knowing that he would be leaving soon and she would be alone again.
This made me think of our own struggles as humans to feel like the gods of our own universe. Seemingly threatened by anything that goes against what we believe or have developed an opinion of. Constantly reevaluating our own thoughts and feelings because of new information, sometimes for the betterment of who we are, sometimes to our detriment of our own identity because we want to belong at any cost. But should we not want to be gods, but to be human. Accept our identities which include our flaws and our strengths. The days we can take on anything, and the days we need to rest. The vast amount of things we know, and the acceptance that there is much we don’t know, but are willing to learn.
This transition from believing we are the masters of our own universe to a belief where we are but one beautiful star among billions of stars and other astral beings in a masterful universe, is this the transition we need to begin to become better to each other and start to heal the wounds we have caused to ourselves and others? I think so, and Circe thought so too when she acted in ways to better herself and the humans around her.
Be good to yourself and the other stars around you.